In 1974, Marc Schupan took a leave from his job as a high school government teacher and coach to sort out his future. He thought about law school. Or maybe college coaching.
First, he planned to spend a year helping with his family's modest Kalamazoo scrap metal operation. But just a few weeks into the job, his father, Nelson, died of a stroke at age 53. Schupan hasn’t looked back since.
“Sunday morning was the funeral. Monday morning I took over,” he recalled.
What was then the Konisberg Co. is now Schupan & Sons. The firm that ran on two trucks and six employees now employs some 400, 172 in Kalamazoo alone. It has 10 facilities in four Midwest states and encompasses divisions in industrial recycling, beverage container recycling and aluminum and plastic fabrication and sales.
The corporate resume speaks for itself.
As successful as he’s been in business, Schupan, 64, has left a deeper imprint far beyond the bottom line. He is a tireless advocate for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kalamazoo. He pays for new shoes for disadvantaged elementary students. He donated $10,000 to keep afloat a summer swimming instruction program for area youth.
And he finds time to be a frequent guest on the national TV finance show “Squawk Box” on CNBC.
Friendship forged in tragedy
The Michigan State University graduate even managed to impress friend and MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, who respects the example Schupan sets for giving back. Izzo was featured speaker in Kalamazoo in 2012 at the Big Brothers Big Sisters annual benefit dinner.
“He's a giver more than a taker, a giver without wanting anything back,” Izzo said. “He doesn't want the publicity. He just wants to help people.”
They got to know each over the years, in part, through Schupan's attendance at an annual golf fundraiser in Iron Mountain organized by Izzo and fellow Iron Mountain High School classmate Steve Mariucci, a former coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. The friendship deepened following the death of Schupan's son, Seth, in a 2002 automobile accident.
Indeed, to Schupan, there is no line between success in business and community commitment. It boils down to treating people right.
He is fond of repeating a saying from a 1941 calendar: “'There is nothing nearly so clever as honesty and sincerity.' There is a difference between being fair and tough. You can be tough as long as you are fair.”
His firm is known for flexibility in employee personal time, holiday bonuses and free turkeys for employees at Thanksgiving. Workers receive $75 a month to defray the cost of commuting and $60 a year for footwear. They get a paid day off each year so they can volunteer at a charity of their choice.
The approach has resulted in a loyal work force that seems to share Schupan's penchant for giving back. In 2012, all 172 Kalamazoo employees contributed to that year's annual United Way campaign. It was the second time employees compiled a perfect record.
The Schupan philosophy is summarized another way on the firm's website: “Our formula for success for the last 40 years is simple: Treat our customers, employees and consumers as we would wish to be treated.”
But it also took a considerable leap of faith on his part as the company struggled in its early years.
Big bet in 1970s pays off
Business was tough as he took the helm and by the the end of 1975, company sales were down 40 percent from the previous year. A recession in the mid-’70s hit the business hard.
He convinced a bank to lend him enough money to build a new facility to replace the firm's cramped original location. When the economy picked up, the company was poised for success.
“When you are young, you are going to try things,” he said.
By 2012, revenues exceeded $250 million as the firm diversified from a modest metal scrap business to include distribution of custom aluminum and plastic fabrication and beverage container recycling. It has part ownership of a melting facility in Indiana. Operating out of two plants in Michigan, it is the largest U.S. independent recycler of used beverage containers.
The company remains a family operation. Schupan's brother, Dan, is executive vice president of its industrial scrap division. His sister, Dana Wardlaw, is an account executive. Daughter Shayna Barry works in administration in the beverage division. Her husband, John, is president of its aluminum and plastics sales division. A son, Jacob, is a customer development manager.
But while the business was building profit, Schupan always made time for a different kind of balance sheet.
He's been a contributor to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kalamazoo for more than 25 years, helping with its annual fundraising dinner and aiding in acquisition of property for its headquarters in Kalamazoo that opened in 2006.
“Marc believes in making sure every child in life has a chance to succeed,” said Sherry Butler, director of corporations operations for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
It's a belief shared by his wife, Jeanne, who is a Big Sister herself. The Schupans have one other son, Jordan, an options trader in Chicago.
The headquarters is named for his son, Seth, who died in a Tuscola County automobile accident that also claimed his maternal grandparents. He was 23.
Marc Schupan heard from uncounted friends and family following the accident, including a card from Izzo and members of the Spartan basketball team.
“They were really supportive. Each one wrote a note on a sympathy card to the family.”
His response to that tragedy was typical for him.
He founded the Seth Schupan Memorial Fund, which gives to Kalamazoo area programs focused on youth and education. He supported a hockey tournament in his son's name at Northwood University, where Seth played club hockey. He funded a Northwood scholarship fund named for his son that pays tuition for four students enrolled in an entrepreneurship program.
But the community commitments hardly end there.
Schupan also contributes to the First Day Shoe Fund, which furnishes new athletic shoes for Kalamazoo County students who qualify for free or reduced lunch in kindergarten through third grade.
In the hopes of reducing accidental drowning, Schupan also believes area youth deserve a chance to learn how to swim. It is a particular risk among black children ages 5 to 14, who have a drowning rate three times white children in the same age range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2012, his $10,000 gift funded a program to teach swimming and tutor to area youth. Frances Jewell, former director of the city's parks and recreation department said then the “program wouldn't have happened” without the donation.
Employee: Boss is ‘real deal’
Truck driver Henry Bennett, 61, has been with the company 33 years. His initial impression of Schupan has been confirmed through the decades.
“I saw something in Marc,” Bennett recalled of his early days with the firm.
Each year, Bennett said, he gets a birthday card from Schupan with a handwritten, personal note.
“He thanks me for the years of loyalty and the work I do all year long,” Bennett said.
“He's always treated me with a smile, always a handshake and 'How's things going?' How are the roads?' There is no phoniness to Marc. He's the real deal.”
Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.